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Forecasting Cardinals 2021 Payroll

Pretty much one singular player determines if the Cardinals will have an excess of money.

2019 NLCS Game 2 - Washington Nationals v. St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/MLB Photos via Getty Images

With the 2019-2020 offseason about to end, I thought it would be interesting to take a look forward. The Cardinals offseason has been defined by inactivity. Bill Dewitt gives Michael Girsch and John Mozeliak a strict budget, and the men in charge need to adjust the offseason to those plans. The Cardinals payroll at the end of last season was $173 million and with no moves in this offseason, the payroll would have been $163 million.

So with only $10 million to work with, they made more minor moves. They traded Jose Martinez and his $2.1 million salary - though I doubt money was why they moved him - and gave that money to free agent Matt Wieters. Then they signed Kwang-hyun Kim to a 2 year, $8 million deal, and that’s currently where the payroll stands - $167.6 million. While that is $5 million less than last year, keep in mind Adam Wainwright’s incentive-laden deal, which could raise the deal up to $10 million, or that difference exactly.

On the downside, there’s very little reason to expect a 2021 payroll that deviates from $173 million too strongly. But it’s not all bad. It seems like the Cardinals as an organization are very committed to spending just about all of the budget they set for themselves. Which also means that the payroll shouldn’t be expected to be much less than $173 million either. So with a budget of $173 million - and for the right player, I assume $175 million is also on the table, how much money will the Cardinals have to spend?

That answer... is a lot more complicated than you’d think. Let’s get to the very uncomplicated aspects of the payroll first. Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Miles Mikolas, Dexter Fowler, Carlos Martinez, Paul DeJong, and Kim will all be making a combined $97.7 million in 2021. Also uncomplicated are the pre-arbitration players who are either still in the minors or are going to have less than three years of service time by 2021, which includes Dakota Hudson, Giovanny Gallegos, Tyler O’Neill, and Tommy Edman.

In more complicated territory, there are two players with options in 2021. Kolten Wong has a $12.5 million team option, which I think is safe to assume will be accepted. And reliever Andrew Miller has a $12 million vesting option, which requires that he appear in 110 games in 2019 and 2020. Miller has already appeared in 73, so it’s also safe to assume that option will vested. Now we’re at $122.2 million.

Let’s do the arbitration players next. On Roster Resource, there are seven potential players eligible for arbitration in 2021: Harrison Bader, Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes, John Brebbia, Jordan Hicks, Yairo Munoz, and John Gant. Of that list, Munoz is not a certainty to reach arbitration. He has 1.154 days of service time. In order to qualify for arbitration, he needs to have roughly 2.130 days of service time - Super Two rule - which would require him to be in the majors for all of the season except for 24 days, which seems pretty unlikely. So I’m going to count him with the pre-arbitration players.

John Gant has already entered arbitration, and we have a benchmark for how much he’d get. He’s making $1.3 million this season. He could theoretically have a fantastic season that would raise his salary more, but I’m penciling him for $1.8 million for now. I can’t really imagine either Alex Reyes or Jordan Hicks getting much with neither have a huge track record at this point. Hicks has a few saves and a low ERA, so I’ll just guess $2 million. Reyes 2020 performance will go a long way towards deciding his pay, but right now it’s definitely less than $1 million. And Brebbia is a full-time middle reliever, and they don’t make much, so I’ll give him Gant’s $1.3 million salary.

That leaves the two more difficult cases in Jack Flaherty and Harrison Bader. I’ll use three recent pitchers to get an idea for Flaherty. There’s Noah Syndergaard, who had a 6 WAR season in 2016, and then only started 7 games in 2017 before his first arbitration. He got $3 million. Jacob deGrom had a 4.9 WAR season in 2015 and followed that up with a 2.9 WAR season in 2016 before his first arb. He made $4.1 million. And lastly, Luis Severino followed a 5.6 WAR season with a 5.4 WAR season, and while he signed an extension, we know the submitted salaries for the team and player: $4.4 and $5.25 million. So he’s probably making somewhere between $3 million and $5.3 million. Flaherty is projected for 4.4 WAR, so I think it’s safe to assume over $4.1 million. So I’ll just predict $5 million for him.

Harrison Bader is a lot tougher to figure, because these arbitration panels tend to underrate defense. The closest comparable to Bader in recent history is Kevin Kiermaier, who avoided arbitration with a team friendly deal. But there’s a few wrinkles of course. Kiermaier was at the time 1) better 2) a Super Two player and 3) signed a team friendly extension. Thankfully, he agreed to a salary to avoid arbitration before signing the extension, which was $2.97 million. Using the rough 25-30-40-60 method, this means Kiermaier would be worth $3.75 million if he wasn’t Super Two, but entering arbitration for first time.

Bader isn’t as good as Kiermaier, but Kiermaier also had a few things against him: low HRs, less than 500 PAs so not high RBIs or runs totals, and low average. Bader is projected for more HRs and seems likely to exceed his RBIs and runs, and while Bader isn’t likely to steal 20 bases, he’ll still steal double digits. I think a safe bet is a $3 million salary for Bader, though for the reasons I laid out above, I could easily see him getting around Kiermaier’s figure too. Add it all together, and I have the arbitration folks making $14 million.

Altogether, the Cardinals are at a salary of $136.2 million. But there’s two 80-year-old elephants in the room: Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Molina comes off the books in 2021, but he seems rather likely to be put back on the books. Wainwright is a different story. His odds seem less than 50-50, but he’s far from a sure thing to retire. I’m going to take two educated guesses here and say Wainwright is pitching his last season this year and that Molina returns at a salary of $10 million. Now we’re at $146.2 million.

Roster Resource estimates the 2020 roster to pay $10.14 million to pre-arbitration players, which I believe includes members on the 40 man who are not necessarily going to be on the big league squad immediately. Five of the 2020 pre-arbitration players are going to be in arbitration next year, and two of the guaranteed salary guys (Wieters and Wainwright) are (probably) leaving, which means we have three less pre-arbitration players to pay, so I’ll estimate the 2021 pre-arb guys at $8.46 million. Now we’re at $154.7 million.

I’ll spare you the math: that gives the Cardinals roughly $18 million to work with, assuming my predictions are correct. There are three rather huge variables in that number. Most obviously, Molina’s salary, which I’m pretty certain is going to be less than $20 million, but that’s about it. Molina has essentially given the Cardinals all the leverage and players like him, at his age, don’t really get paid anymore, so I could easily be wrong with the $10 million guess. He could also retire.

The second variable is Wainwright. I think speculating Wainwright’s salary is a lot less difficult than Molina if he were to return. If he returned for 2021, it’d be a safe bet that Wainwright had a similar 2020 to 2019 and felt comfortable pitching another year. And he would probably get a near identical deal to the one he got immediately following the 2019 season.

The last variable is Andrew Miller. There’s no real nice way to put this, but if he were to pitch less than 37 games in 2020, the Cardinals would be in a better position to spend significant money in the 2020-2021 offseason. It’s unlikely, but not quite as improbable as you’d think. Miller first emerged as a relief threat all the way back in 2012. He spent time on what used to be the disabled list in 2012, 2013 (37 GP), 2015, 2017 and 2018 (34 GP). If his option doesn’t vest - and if it doesn’t, there’s no reason to think the Cardinals accept that third year - the Cardinals go from having $18 million to $29.5 million (he has a $2.5 million buyout), depending on Yadi and Waino’s situation. I feel comfortable saying they’d have more than $20 million to work with in any case.

How does this compare to the rest of the NL Central? I’m going to not make a guess for the Pirates. They have spent just $59 million on payroll this year, and only have $19 million committed for 2021. However, they do have a potential of 17 players eligible for arbitration. Then there’s Milwaukee and I don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They had a $131 million payroll in 2019, and despite being very much in the NL Central race, it currently stands at just $108 million. They have $51.5 million committed in 2020, plus SIX players with a club option ($29.8 million worth), plus nine players in arbitration (Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Brent Suter should combine for $15 million by themselves plus Brandon Woodruff is entering for first time). Doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of room to spend unless they’re willing to increase payroll.

The Reds are a clear wild card, because they seem - for the moment - willing to spend. They have about $144 million spent for 2020 and have a head start on 2021 to the tune of $100 million. They have a few relevant arbitration eligible players too. There’s Michael Lorenzen (Guess: $5.6 mil) and Curt Casali ($1.9). Luis Castillo, Amir Garrett, and Jesse Winker all enter arbitration at the same time as well. That’s maybe another $7 million. Add in the pre-arb guys and it looks like they’re set for a $122 million payroll. Definitely potential action here.

The Cubs are pretty widely expected to trade Kris Bryant before he hits free agency, but if not, their room to spend money essentially comes down to one decision: whether or not to accept Jon Lester’s $25 million option. They have $105 million to guaranteed players. I’m estimating a combined $59.4 million to Bryant, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, and Kyle Schwarber. There’s a few other arb guys who don’t stand to make much, but might be DFA’d, so I’ll just combine them with the prearb guys and say $10 million to the rest of the roster. Which is where Lester comes in, with a seemingly easy to decline club option, except since $10 million is the buyout, it’s essentially a 1 year, $15 million decision, which feels like something that could very much be accepted. Which would put them at $189.4 million. Add in the player benefits and 40 man players in minor leagues, and that puts them right near luxury tax of $206 million.

That’s basically why Kris Bryant is widely expected to be traded. With their World Series win in the rearview, they care more about getting under the luxury tax. Keep Bryant and they’ll have another offseason with no movement or they’ll find themselves rejecting Lester’s option and having to replace 2/5 of the rotation (Quintana will be a free agent). Instead they’ll probably trade Bryant, get a return that will at least give them a long-term solution to either 3B, the OF, or SP (or both), and then use the remaining money to fill any more holes. Which is nice in theory, but it will almost certainly make them a worse team for 2021 than with Bryant in it.

So the Cardinals certainly have a bit more flexibility to their next offseason plans than the Cubs do. But this post was partially meant as a caution. Don’t expect much from next offseason either. Yes, money will be coming off the books, but it’s probably going to be less “The Cards are in the running for Mookie Betts” and more “The Cards hope Robbie Ray’s price falls so they can swoop in with a shorter term deal.” Which sure makes it a more exciting offseason than this past one, but I wouldn’t expect anything crazy.